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									     IS NEW YORK CITY AMERICA? Urban Symbolism in the Gilded Age
   Joanne Reitano, Professor of History, LaGuardia Community College, CUNY
            NEH Seminar: Illustrating the Gilded Age, Spring 2008

       The strange thing about New York City is that so many people feel so
strongly about it. They either love it or they hate it. Indeed, says sociologist
Anselm Strauss, "no other city has been so despised as NY." At the same time, he
points out that no other city has been so admired. The dichotomy reflects the fact
that New York City epitomizes what Strauss calls the "basic ambiguities of
American values." It is precisely this ambiguity, this complexity, this blending of
opposites that gives NYC its symbolic significance for American History. And yet,
it is precisely those same qualities that have prompted the perennial question "Is
New York City America?" So far as I know, this question is asked only of New
York, a curious fact that gives the city special significance as a measure of the
American character.
       One argument that New York is not America is Thomas Bender's concept of
the city as "a center of difference." According to Bender, "what makes New York
uncomfortable with America and America uncomfortable with New York" is the
national obsession with "the small town and the agricultural frontier." While
America hallows conformity, community, consensus and continuity, New York
represents cosmopolitanism, complexity, conflict and change. To Henry Ford,
NYC was "a different country. Maybe it ought to have a separate government," he
said. "Everybody thinks differently, acts differently--they just don't know what the
hell the rest of the United States is." Ford's hostility is significant. Could it be, as
historian Milton Klein suggested in 1978, that Americans were always "scared of
New York City" because it embodied "the present or future problems they
themselves must face."
       A third concept of New York revolves around one of the city's nicknames,
Gotham. Introduced by Washington Irving in 1807, the term derived from an old
English town whose residents pretended to be simple minded in order to keep the
King from taking over their village. As the English put it, "more fools pass through
Gotham than stay in it." This name lasted because it captured what the historian
William R. Taylor called "the ironic persona of the city." It suggested a place that
was at once "unique and representative," a part of the nation, but different from it,
"outlandish, crazy, yet somehow typical."
       In essence, Strauss, Bender and Taylor offer three versions of the same
theme. Because of its ambiguity, difference and ironic persona, New York is and is
not America. It cannot easily be categorized; it is unique. On this one point its
admirers and detractors agree. But to James Fenimore Cooper, New York's
exceptionalism made it more American, not less. As he put it in 1851, "New York

is essentially national in interest, position and pursuits. No one thinks of the place
as belonging to a particular state, but to the United States." By the mid-twentieth
century, the home of the United Nations had become a world city symbolizing the
future of humankind. It was larger than itself.
       Before analyzing the symbolism of New York City in the Gilded Age, we
should clarify our terms. There are two kinds of symbolism-- tangible and
intangible. Tangible symbols include places and structures that were and remain
significant enough to become local, national and even international icons.
Intangible symbols include concepts associated with the tangible symbols--the
ideas or dilemmas they represented that were and are typically tied to New York
City while also reflecting larger national concerns. Your readings touch upon many
of them and open the door to others. As Strauss shows, urban symbolism is a big
subject that invites comparison across cities and eras, a project that I hope you or
your students might pursue using NYC as a starting point and paradigm.
       Focusing on NYC in the Gilded Age is appropriate because the post-Civil
War era is the great period of American urbanization and modernization. The late-
nineteenth century city, said Arthur M. Schlesinger, Sr., "constituted the nerve
center of the rising industrial order." NYC was central to that process and it is
interesting to see how many aspects of urban symbolism derived from Gotham in
the late-nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, especially around the three main
components of urbanization--industrialization, immigration and innovation.

       New York was never a heavy industrial city like Detroit, but it had extensive
light industries. In addition, as the nation's primary port city, it was a central
market for wholesale and retail sales. Its integrated, diversified economy
complemented by technological advances created the modern city. New York's
new wealth and stature were embodied in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the
Museum of Natural History, the Metropolitan Opera House, Carnegie Hall and the
New York Public Library, all renowned Beaux Art structures. These huge,
horizontal buildings attested to Gotham's coming of age as a major city rich
enough to compete with European centers of culture. In this sense, the Gilded Age
was genuinely golden.
       NYC's most spectacular connection to the new economy was as headquarters
for the trusts and provider of the financial services so essential to post-Civil War
industrialism. Not only was New York home to two thirds of the nation's biggest
firms, but it also accounted for a quarter of the nation's banks. According to
historian Thomas Kessner, Chicago may have dominated the Midwest, but New
York "was the center around which other regional metropolises orbited, the great

organizer of American commerce." Consequently, NYC was forever associated
with the greatest successes and the worst excesses of capitalism.
       No other place in the nation is more closely identified with wealth than Wall
Street, which acquired great actual and symbolic importance during the Gilded
Age. Its narrow canyons echoed the robber barons' oppressive stranglehold on
American industry anchored at Broad and Wall streets by J. P. Morgan's office and
the Stock Exchange. George Washington's statue, completed in 1883, faced them
from Federal Hall as if warning America of the threat to democracy posed by
special interests. So too, Trinity Church met Wall Street at Broadway, a constant
reminder of the contrast between the morality of religion and the immorality of the
market. Or perhaps the church simply sanctified America's worship of the god of
Mammon. Be that as it may, for all of its negative connotations, Wall Street
persistently evoked a very positive promise of personal and national affluence. The
mixed messages of Wall Street are a good example of the ambiguity that Strauss
       The role and imagery of Broadway is also ambiguous. As Gotham's oldest
and longest street, it consistently reflected the city's development. From the start, it
sported a curious blend of homes, hotels and businesses plus places of
entertainment such as theaters and Barnum's Museum During the 1880's,
Broadway was electrified and spawned a shopping district called the Ladies Mile.
Originally from 9th street to 23rd street, it reached 34th street by 1902. A. T.
Stewart's, Lord and Taylor's, B. Altman's, Arnold Constable's, Stern's and, of
course, Macy's marked the emergence of the new retail emporium called the
department store.
       Historian Gunther Barth explains that by concentrating various goods in one
downtown location, the department store provided a safe haven for women who
now claimed their right to be in the city center thereby modernizing both social
space and social roles. In addition, historian Alan Trachtenberg points out that the
department store marked a radical shift in Americans' self-definition from
producers to consumers bolstered by the rise of advertising. Despite national
expansion and on-line ordering, Macy's at 34th and Broadway still evokes New
York City and America's consumer culture. Indeed, every year the whole nation
celebrates Macy's while ostensibly marking the Thanksgiving Day parade, which
really should be held in Boston.
       In addition to Wall St and Broadway, another NYC street that epitomized
the Gilded Age was Fifth Avenue, which became a national symbol of wealth and
success. With almost a third of America's millionaires living in the New York
metropolitan area by the 1890s, it is not surprising that the city was identified with
conspicuous consumption. Indeed, the rich outdid each other by building the most
ostentatious homes imaginable on what came to be known as Millionaires' Row.

The competition was not just between families but within them as seen in the
Vanderbilts' various chateaus replete with ballrooms, theaters and art galleries.
Fifth Avenue also sported elegant restaurants, churches, clubs and hotels including
the Plaza and the Waldorf-Astoria.
       Together Wall Street, Broadway and Fifth Avenue symbolized America's
economic prowess in the industrial era and its optimistic belief in the promise of
prosperity. In the 1860s, wrote English author Anthony Trollope, you could see
"the ascendancy of dollars on every paving stone along Fifth Avenue, down
Broadway, and to Wall Street." Consequently, New York City became the focus of
attention and admiration as well as the source of fear and resentment. It connoted
profit and power but also greed and gluttony. While the nation wanted to be rich, it
did not want all the riches concentrated in a few men in one city. The wealthier and
flashier Gotham became, the more it seemed to undermine the American Dream.
Even today we constantly pit Wall Street against Main Street. Nonetheless, New
York remains an irresistible magnet for the aggressive, the ambitious and the
optimistic. It sustains America's indomitable spirit.

       Urbanization and industrialization provided much opportunity and many
jobs that attracted foreign immigrants as well as domestic migrants. Of course,
NYC had always been a primary port of destination for Europeans, but in the
Gilded Age the flow became a flood marked by a significant shift in ethnicity
which made NYC seem more alien than ever. Thus, the Denver Post declared that
NYC now had so much "immigrant trash that it can scarcely be considered
American anymore."
       The old immigrants were mainly English, German and Irish. The new
immigrants were mainly Italians and Eastern European Jews, the vast majority of
whom gravitated to the Lower East Side and stayed in NYC. Their numbers were
so large that in 1892 the federal government established a screening station at Ellis
Island, a testimony to and lasting symbol of New York's historic role as the
nation's gateway city and melting pot. It affirms the connection between diversity
and democracy.
       As they sailed into the harbor, the new immigrants were greeted by the
Statue of Liberty which has dominated not only the harbor but the American mind
since 1886. As Kessner points out, the bronze Lady replaced the Liberty Bell as
the icon of the American dream. The famous poem on its base, written by Emma
Lazarus, the daughter of a wealthy German Jew, welcomed the "huddled masses
yearning to breathe free." She gave the harbor a humanitarian mission that
dovetailed with its economic functions. Over time, of course, the Statue became
not just a national symbol, but an international symbol suitable to a world city. It

heralded America as a land of opportunity, a refuge where people of different
origins could coexist and overcome their pasts. The light of its lamp was and
remains a beacon of hope to humankind so touchingly replicated by students
demonstrating for freedom at Tiananmen Square in 1989.
       Nonetheless, reality invaded illusion when the new immigrants settled on the
Lower East Side, one of NYC's best known neighborhoods. A case study in the
possibilities and problems of pluralism, the predominately Jewish Lower East Side
also encompassed Little Italy and Chinatown. Different groups lived separately but
in proximity, with prejudice among and against them complicating their lives. As
always, the Europeans were torn between the desire to preserve their cultures and
the demands of assimilation. By contrast, the Chinese had no such choice because
they were deprived of the chance to become citizens and excluded from most
occupations. Instead Chinatown became a commercialized cultural sideshow.
       The Lower East Side provided the cheap labor on which the city's
development depended. It also revealed the underside of urbanization and
industrialization, especially as exposed by the Danish immigrant, journalist Jacob
Riis. First published in 1890, How the Other Half Lives compelled America to
reassess poverty in the land of plenty. As David Laviatin points out, Riis'
photographs were essential to his impact because they literally and figuratively
illuminated the dark recesses of urban life. They were part of the new realism in
literature and art while they also helped create "the new visual culture" that
characterizes modern life. At the time, however, Riis's pictures were simply
shocking. Urban crowding, filth and stench, human hunger, misery and pain had
never seemed so concrete. With its grime and crime, its foreign tongues and
strange religions, the Lower East Side was what the nation did not want to be. Its
difference was damning.
       The negative image of the Lower East Side contrasts with the positive image
of the Statue of Liberty, but in many ways the two symbols are complementary.
Over time, Lower East Side poverty was translated into benign accounts of social
mobility, romanticized by many of its well-to-do descendents. The enduring, if
ever changing symbolism of the Lower East Side is evident in the conversion of
the old Jewish Daily Forward building to an Asian business building, the shift from
a Michael Gold novel to a Miguel Pinero poem. Amazingly enough, the tenement
house has become a museum and the National Historic Trust just designated the
Lower East Side an endangered historic site. Even if tales of the Lower East Side
are always bittersweet, they represent one of the most optimistic versions of the
human struggle--the tenacity of the individual against great odds. In this sense,
NYC is synonymous with the American dream rather than the nightmare.
       By the same token, the Lower East Side illuminated another important
aspect of New York City's history--its tradition of social reform, its identification

with American liberalism. Riis' prejudices and middle class urges notwithstanding,
he humanized the poor and aroused the social conscience of people in NYC and
across the nation. Thus, while Gotham in the Gilded Age epitomizes social
Darwinism, it is also associated with social conscience through charities,
settlement houses, socialism and labor unions. Historian Alan Nevins even
suggested that generosity and human empathy were "the golden threads" that
distinguished NYC's character. If so, they may offset Gotham's reputation for
cutthroat competition and crass materialism.
       In Gilded Age politics, immigrants helped NYC develop another urban
paradigm when it came to be considered the worst governed city in the world. Evil
was embodied in Boss Tweed, the symbol of urban corruption and the best known
political figure of the era. The base of bossism was the immigrant who exchanged
votes for services not provided by nineteenth century municipal governments. Help
in getting a job, paying rent, posting bail, or simply putting food on the table made
immigrants dependent on bosses who took advantage of their power to profit on an
unprecedented scale. The nation recoiled in horror at what Lincoln Steffens labled
The Shame of the Cities. Whether in politics or business, on Fifth Avenue or the
Bowery, at the Stock Exchange or in a sweatshop, NYC was American industrial
capitalism writ large, for better and for worse.

       The innovative, can-do attitude that suffused all of American history was
particularly evident in NYC during the Gilded Age and was popularized in Horatio
Alger's dime novels. Indeed, urban technological, economic and cultural
innovation was a corollary to the pioneer spirit so often hallowed in American
history but so often defined exclusively in rural terms. However, as sociologist
Charles Abrams suggested in 1965, in many ways The City Is The Frontier.
Certainly, that seemed true in the Gilded Age when the city led the nation in
industrialization and when NYC created a striking number of what Tom Bender
calls "icons of innovation."
       Gilded Age Gotham's most magnificent symbol of innovation was the
Brooklyn Bridge, often called the eighth wonder of the world. When it opened in
1883 after 16 years of labor costing 20 lives, it instantly became an urban and
national icon. America's longest suspension bridge, it blended art with technology,
old with new in testimony to New York's soaring spirit. Perhaps no other bridge
has been so lovingly and so frequently celebrated in photographs, paintings,
poems, novels and advertisements, not to mention architectural and historical
studies. Hardly just a matter of transportation, the Brooklyn Bridge symbolizes the
nation's highest aspirations, its faith in technology, its belief in progress. As
historian Alan Trachtenberg explained in his book Brooklyn Bridge, Fact and

Symbol (1965), the bridge "transcends its materials" to become "the cardinal
emblem of the age" and "its willingness to attempt the untried and impossible." In
its "mechanical elegance," he said, the bridge proved that America had become a
modern "city on a hill."
        Chicago may have previewed the skyscraper and Boston may have
previewed the subway, but New York is more closely identified with both
innovations than its sister cities. Thanks to the steel frame and the elevator, pure
products of the industrial revolution, buildings rose to ten stories by 1870 and
thirty stories by 1900. The skyscraper began replacing the railroad as the symbol
of American economic development. It especially became, said historian Bayard
Still, "the hallmark of NYC."
        Completed in 1902, the Flatiron building presaged the city's future explosion
upward and its famous skyline. In its day, wrote novelist Ford Madox Ford, the
Flatiron was considered miraculous. The groundbreaking photographer Alfred
Steiglitz saw in the Flatiron building evidence of America's destiny as a modern
giant. Yet, to others it signaled a regrettable shift from a horizontal to a vertical
city where economic interests overwhelmed human interests. Ironically, the
skyscraper evoked the ambitious and limitless but anonymous and soulless city.
        The blizzard of 1888 finally convinced New Yorkers to complement their
expansion above ground with an equally ambitious enterprise below ground in
order to alleviate the dangerous congestion caused by carts, horses, trolleys, cable
cars and the elevated railway, not to mention pedestrians. When the subway
opened in 1904, it was the fastest system in the world with the first all-steel
subway cars. Like its city, the subway was bigger and better than any other.
Considered as significant as the Erie Canal and the Brooklyn Bridge, the subway
testified to what Henry James recognized as the dynamism of the machine age. At
the same time, the subway connoted the frantic pace, the smothering congestion,
the cold impersonality of New York City. The contrast with rural America could
not have been greater.
        As if to further emphasize New York's difference from the rest of the
country, in the late-nineteenth and early twentieth centuries it developed three
social environments that soon became place names for cultural rebellion and
unconventional behavior. Innovative as they were, Greenwich Village, Times
Square and Coney Island were simultaneously appalling and enticing. They
defined New York's dual role as the nation's cultural cesspool and its cultural
model. They epitomized NYC's rejection of what Bender calls "a national culture
of sameness."
        The Greenwich Village Bohemian rebellion grew out of New York's historic
tolerance of difference, its live and let live ethos. These values were enhanced by
the increased numbers and variety of people who flocked to the late-nineteenth

century city. Unlike the homogeneous small rural community, urban size and
diversity left room for individuality and deviance. More than ever, the city became
a haven for the nation's non-conformists. Gilded Age urbanization set the stage for
innovation in art, music, theater, poetry, and novels. NYC became the hotbed of
cultural and sexual revolution.
       Social roles were further challenged by Times Square and Coney Island,
both of which developed in the late-nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
Electricity and mass transportation made Times Square and Coney Island possible.
The subway stop at 42nd Street and Broadway inaugurated the first New Year's
Eve party in 1904, an event that, like Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade, still
connotes the excitement of New York and its role as the crossroads of the world.
The electric signs emphasized New York's commercialism while canonizing the
Great White Way and The City That Never Sleeps.
       At the same time, the juxtaposition of illegitimate activities and legitimate
theater offered tantalizing examples of the "dynamic tensions" that Howard
Mumford considered so endemic to urban life. The resulting cosmopolitanism
drew more people to the city than it repelled, proving once again that ambiguity is
more interesting than consistency. Significantly, Bender bemoans the success of
the powerful political and commercial interests who sanitized and homogenized
Times Square, thereby killing it.
       So too, the original Coney Island combined acceptable, innocent fun with
unacceptable social transgressions and implicit danger. No wonder it was called
"Sodom by the Sea." Made accessible by the trolley and illuminated by electric
lights, the mechanized amusements provided New Yorkers with an escape from the
daily drudgery of work and the restraints of social convention. Exhilarating rides,
darkened tunnels, and impersonal mobs spelled fun and broke down social barriers.
Play cut across class, ethnic and gender lines defying Puritanism and exalting a
new leisure ethic. Like Greenwich Village and Times Square, Coney Island
symbolized escape, individual freedom and cultural innovation, if not rebellion.
Perched precariously on the shores of the Atlantic Ocean right at the nation's edge,
Coney Island was, like New York itself, not quite attached to the mainland.
       There is a final way in which Gilded Age NYC reflected the nation's
ambiguity of values--its symbolic silence regarding race. In the post-Civil War
period, the easiest solution to what was called "the Negro problem" was to sweep it
under the rug. This was especially important in New York City where the Gilded
Age was framed by race riots, that is, attacks by whites against blacks. The Draft
Riots of 1863 and the Tenderloin Riot of 1900 (plus two more race riots in 1905
and 1910) were horribly violent affairs with lynchings in the former and vicious
beatings in the latter. Of course, these were extreme events, but they reflected New
York's long history of racial tension and oppression, as well as of African

American resilience. Despite on-going organizational efforts epitomized by the
formation of the NAACP in 1908, we really do not get a positive African
American NYC symbol until Harlem becomes a black community in the twentieth
century and engenders the Harlem Renaissance, soon after which it became a
notorious slum. Unfortunately, on the race issue, New York was less a center of
difference than a mirror of America's shortcomings.
       The last word belongs to Ford Madox Ford. Although he famously declared
in 1927 that "New York is Not America," he really believed that Gotham embodied
the very best of the American spirit. As he traveled across the country, Ford found
nothing but sameness and dullness defined by suspicion of strangers, close
supervision, and "the sterner values." By contrast, he said, "New York is Babel
without confusion of tongues, a place of refuge for all races of the world from the
flood of ancient sorrows…. It is the City of the Good Time… But the Good
Time…is human and attainable."
       Consequently, Ford concluded that America and the world would be much
poorer without New York City. As he said, "We should miss the canyons, the
contacts, the shadows, the clangings; we should miss the pain and the necessity for
hope. We should miss Gotham." The symbolism of New York during the Gilded
Age contains the symbolism of America over time. Ultimately, the nation is
enriched, not diminished, by New York's ambivalences, differences and ironies.
They remind us of what we can do and what we still must do to realize the
American promise. In this sense, New York City is not just a place; it is a state of
mind, one that in its complexity is profoundly American.


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